Portrait photography has its origins in an artwork of Englishman John William Draper. His initial images, recorded in 1840 of his sister Dorothy are worldwide considered to be the first photographs. Approximately 15 years later, based on this pioneering work Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri established the first photo studio, focusing on portrait photography. This so-called ‘cartes de visits’ enjoyed to such popularity that Disdéris’ offer soon had many imitators, which now ousted most portrait painters.
However, portrait photography remained primarily one thing: hard work. Both, photographer and the people, wanting their pictures to be taken had to come up with a lot of patience before the desired photographs, literally were “in the box.” Exposure time between 10 minutes and
half an hour required not only to sit patiently without movement, but also helped to speed along the invention many by-products. For example: to counteract blurred shots, special “head holders” were invented.
Only after the invention of highly photosensitive photographic plates and more powerful lenses the exposure time was limited to an acceptable time. Now where these sessions were significantly reduced in time, the photographer had a chance to focus more on the artistic side of his work, which gave photography many new aspects. From this point on, the technical implementation was not longer in the focus of the photographer but shifted to the person within the image. More and more photographers saw their subjects (models) in context of time, circumstances and their personality.
The mathematician and classical scholar Charles Lutwidge Dodgson Among were among these early pioneers of this type of portrait photography. His portraits, which have been preserved in his estate, show predominantly ONE Object: Alice Pleasance Liddell – that girl, by which Dodgson was to become as much fame as well as a tragic figure. Famous, because he was inspired to the famous books of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” which he published under the pseudonym Lewis Caroll. Tragic, because the viewer thought to see in Alice something else than the usual portraits.
In a way, they were right because Dodgson revolutionized portraiture in two ways. He was one of the first photographers to dress up, drape and stage his models, while at the same time, the integrity of the people being photographed was extremely important to him. In his portraits, people didn’t need to look or smile in a certain way. He wanted to catch the moment where people could express themselves just the way they are. Dodgson’s photographs were set apart from the portraits of the time, as it allowed his subject to be “normal.”
Right up to our time, portrait photography claims that images, which represents the subject (model) as much as possible true to life are the most desired images. Unlike other genres of the industry “posing” while creating a portrait is taboo. The aim is to depict the person in natural calmer settings. Ideally, the posture and facial expression on any given portrait should appear like a snapshot, reflecting the character of the person being photographed.
That doesn’t necessary mean a picture of the face or head down to the shoulder area. Portraits are also images, which depict that person down to the waistline. If a photography can meet all the requirements of appearing, natural and calm, full body shots can also be classified as portraits. Contrary to the common belief, a portrait is not defined by a head – shoulder depiction, but by the posture the model assumes.
To put the focus on the person and to let them appear as much as possible natural, the photographer, dispense everything, which is not natural. That means, that those models which are to be depicted are not wearing any makeup, nor are they being dressed in a certain way. To portray this natural ambient, the models are wearing everyday clothes, their everyday jewelry and only just a bit or better no makeup at all. To prevent the capturing of unwanted blemishes, wrinkles or other vulnerabilities, are corrected by the photographer through special lightening.
In general, light plays an important role in any portrait photography. Depending on how it is aligned, it can highlight or hide certain properties of the model, which can make the difference of achieving successful portraits. The necessary effects are achieved by filters, diaphragms or color lenses. This gives all who are involved in taking this portrait to focus on the actual goal of the photograph.
To achieve this quality of photography, the photographer and his model usually engage in a short conversation to get to know each other. Only through this “coming closer” with the model (on a purely platonic level), the portrait would have the power to depict the character and transmit its emotions. How well this can work, is proven by the annual “choice of the best Press Photo,”, which always receives top rankings in portrait photography. Even the stars of the music and movie industry, as well as the high society know to appreciate good portraits and allow only those photographers, who have already made themselves a name in the portrait photography, to depict them.
Particularly talented photographers achieve the state’s unlimited freedom. This also gives them the freedom to depict the portraits of celebrities in a new, sometimes alienated way from its original meaning and sometimes in an even provocative context. One very well-known example is the collection “David Bailey – If we shadows”, published in 1992. The eponymous artist selected images of his motivational- and Portrait Photography collection of facing each other.
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